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EDITORIAL

Our Opinion: For innocent man, governor's pardon is too long overdue

Posted on February 22, 2021

Updated on February 24, 2021

OpinionEditorials

Dave DiFilippo cartoon

Gov. Roy Cooper speaks at the Blue NC celebration at the Hilton Charlotte University Place in this file photo from Feb. 29, 2020.

Joshua Komer | The Charlotte Observer via AP

Gov. Roy Cooper speaks at the Blue NC celebration at the Hilton Charlotte University Place in this file photo from Feb. 29, 2020.

Dave DiFilippo cartoon

Gov. Roy Cooper speaks at the Blue NC celebration at the Hilton Charlotte University Place in this file photo from Feb. 29, 2020.

Joshua Komer | The Charlotte Observer via AP

Gov. Roy Cooper speaks at the Blue NC celebration at the Hilton Charlotte University Place in this file photo from Feb. 29, 2020.

Gov. Roy Cooper speaks at the Blue NC celebration at the Hilton Charlotte University Place in this file photo from Feb. 29, 2020.

A year and a half after winning his freedom, Ray Finch feels forgotten.

The Wilson man spent more than 43 years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit. Attorneys for the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic helped him make his case, and federal courts proclaimed his innocence. In May 2019, Finch left the Greene Correctional Institution with little more than the clothes on his back.

The following month, Finch’s attorneys asked Gov. Roy Cooper to grant him a pardon of innocence, which would allow him to seek financial compensation for the four decades he sat in prison for someone else’s crime. 

Fast-forward to February 2021, and Finch is still waiting on the governor’s pardon pen.

Cooper issued five pardons of innocence in December. One exoneree, 65-year-old Ronnie Long, was pardoned less than four months after a court overturned his conviction. While Finch cheered the news, he was disappointed to be left off the list.

“I don’t see how they did that,” Finch told Times reporter Olivia Neeley for a story published in Friday’s edition. “Y’all not thought about me?”

Each person was a worthy recipient of Cooper’s clemency, but Finch cleared an even higher bar. Jim Coleman, a Duke University law professor and co-director of the school’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, noted that the attorney general’s office fought Finch all the way to the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

“There is nothing more Ray could have done to show that he was innocent,” Coleman told the Times. “Nor is it possible the governor has a higher standard of innocence. If he did, how did Ronnie meet it and Ray did not?”

Cooper hasn’t formally denied the pardon application — the governor’s office told our reporter that it remains “under review.” After nearly 19 months, Finch is right to wonder whether the governor has spent any time at all considering his case.

Finch isn’t the only exoneree in limbo. Cooper has been parsimonious when it comes to pardons, with the five grants of clemency late last year serving as the only known examples. That’s a head-scratcher for a governor who served four terms as attorney general and claims to support criminal justice system reforms.

Considering his legal acumen, Cooper should be better suited to parse court opinions, weigh the evidence and pass judgment on pardons than his predecessors. But Coleman said former Gov. Pat McCrory was far more responsive, meeting with supporters and opponents, sharing information about the review process and demonstrating that he took his executive authority seriously.

Coleman and Duke colleagues Jamie Lau and Theresa Newman prodded Cooper in a News & Observer guest column last summer, writing that Cooper was hiding “information that every governor in recent memory made public” regarding clemency applications.

That remains the case today. In the process of reporting Friday’s story, Neeley asked the governor’s office how many requests for pardons and commutations Cooper has received, how many have been denied and how many are still pending. His spokespeople flatly refused to release even statistical details, stretching exceptions in the N.C. Public Records Act beyond their legislative intent.

Cooper has often been a champion for the public’s right to know. As a state senator, he helped craft laws to let more sunshine into shadowy government boardrooms. Hiding in the darkness doesn’t suit him.

While justice delayed is justice denied, we haven’t given up hope that Cooper will ultimately do the right thing and issue Finch a pardon of innocence, allowing him to apply for $750,000 in compensation from the N.C. Industrial Commission.

Advocacy on Finch’s behalf could help accelerate the governor’s glacial pace. Cooper needs to hear from the public he serves, along with local and state elected officials.

Emails can be sent through an online form available at https://governor.nc.gov/contact/contact-governor-cooper/ and letters can be mailed to North Carolina Office of the Governor, 20301 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-0301. Correspondence may be subject to public records laws and may be disclosed to third parties.

A groundswell of support may be all it takes to help right a staggering wrong and give Ray Finch some measure of justice. It may be too little, but it isn’t too late.

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